USC outfielder Jacque Jones is sitting in the dugout at USA Baseball’s training facility and reflecting on the national team’s 36-6 record on the 1995 summer tour, including a four-game sweep of powerful Cuba.
“We have confidence and togetherness,” Jones said. “We know that if we play [the Cubans] tough and keep them close, they’re not invincible.
“We have to remember that.”
Said Cal State Fullerton outfielder Mark Kotsay:
“The Cubans know we can play, that we’re not just a bunch of kids. This is our second summer together, and we have a lot of continuity and experience that will work for us on and off the field. We’re not going to be intimidated [by Cuba] like a lot of international teams are.”
In final preparation for the Olympic Games and its Atlanta debut against Nicaragua on July 20, a U.S. team that Coach Skip Bertman of Louisiana State says has more offensive weapons than any predecessor had proceeded to enhance the confidence of last summer before receiving a dose of reality Saturday night.
The U.S., averaging 10.2 runs per game, had gone 18-0 against some of the teams it will play in Atlanta and stretched a two-year win streak to 39 games before losing to Cuba, 5-1, in Saturday night’s opener of a five-game series.
The Cubans bombed the U.S. and others in winning gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, then shook up an aging team in the aftermath of the U.S. sweep last year. They remain the most formidable hurdle, but not the only one for the U.S. in a field that includes internationally tested Japan and South Korea.
There is pressure on the U.S. in other ways as well.
This is probably the last all-college team to represent the U.S. and must perform well on its home turf to help keep the national pastime in the Olympics. There is no guarantee baseball will be on the program at Sydney in 2000. Three things are imperative, said Richard Case, executive director of USA Baseball:
1. A strong showing by the U.S., preferably a gold, to enhance worldwide visibility and underscore this country’s serious approach to what is basically its own game after being shut out on the medal stand in ’92.
2. Strong ticket sales for the tournament at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (1.4 million of the 1.6 million tickets have been sold).
3. Approval by the International Baseball Assn. for the use of professionals in future Olympics at a Sept. 21 meeting in Switzerland.
Pressure? Bertman calls it prodigious, but said his team isn’t motivated to prove an all-college team, undoubtedly the last all-college team, can win the Olympics again, as the U.S. did in 1988, when Cuba boycotted. “A gold medal is motivation enough,” he said.
But that alone would not save baseball in the Olympics.
The IOC keeps dreaming of a dream team tournament featuring major league players.
The groundswell is such, said Case, that the era of an all-college team seems certain to end in Atlanta.
Aldo Notari of Italy, president of the IBA, agreed.
“I expect Atlanta to be the last Olympic tournament in which only amateurs compete,” he said. “It would be hypocritical to hold out.
“We want to see the best. The world wants to see players from the U.S. major leagues compete in the Olympics.”
With Cuba leading the opposition, the IBA failed by three votes in June of 1994 to approve inclusion of pros. Case, who is also secretary general of the IBA, expects September approval by at least 10 votes.
Money talks. If the IOC were to eliminate baseball from the Olympics, the IBA would lose a $1.5-million subsidy.
The IBA also realizes, officials said, that the 1992 U.S. Dream Team in basketball generated an estimated $80 million in additional merchandising, TV and other revenue for the IOC and other international organizations promoting the sport.
IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch has led the movement to get pro baseball players in the Olympics and has warned the IBA that baseball will be dropped if it doesn’t happen.
“Make no mistake,” Case said. “Samaranch wants a dream team tournament like basketball and hockey because he’s looking at the TV dollars.”
Anita DeFrantz, a Los Angeles-based member of the IOC, disagreed with that interpretation, saying Olympic television commitments have already been signed through 2008.
“It has more to do with the IOC’s change in philosophy,” she said. “We want the best athletes in the world. If we don’t have the best, why have it on the program? If other sports are open to pros, why not baseball?
“I mean, the notion of amateurism was created in this country and has largely worked because of the NCAA, but it’s long been outdated in the rest of the world.”
DeFrantz said she has tried to explain to her IOC colleagues that major league baseball is a summer sport that would be difficult and expensive to interrupt, but once the NHL agreed to shut down for two weeks to allow participation in the 1998 Winter Games, she was “essentially left without an argument.”
The IOC, she said, has promised Sydney it will set the program for 2000 by the end of this year, but even with IBA approval in September, there is no assurance that an agreement could be reached with major league owners to free major league players.
The most likely scenario for the Sydney Games, which begin in September, is a combination of college and triple-A players (minor league seasons end on Sept. 1), with a formula that might free major league players for future Olympics.
Case, resigned to the use of pros to save baseball in the Olympics, bristled at the idea of triple-A players, saying they are no better than the nine players on the U.S. roster who were selected on the first round of the recent draft.
“Nobody wants triple-A players,” he said. “Everybody wants the big show or a combination of the big-show guys and college players who would be more than the tokens that the college players were on the basketball Dream Team.”
Said Bertman, who recently led LSU to the College World Series title:
“Would a team of triple-A players be better than what we have? Probably. But would it be a Dream Team? No way. Would it be worth scrapping what we have for a triple-A team?
“I don’t think so, but this is being decided by the IOC, which means it’s being decided by countries like Zimbabwe and Tanzania that have no clues about the forces that drive major league baseball and know only what the Dream Team in basketball produced financially.”
The seasonal conflict is the largest hurdle confronting the use of major league players, but there are other issues:
--Who would represent the U.S. in Olympic qualifying tournaments and the international events of non-Olympic years?
--Would the pros swing an aluminum or wood bat in the Olympics?
--How would major league players, who seldom leave their homes without an appearance fee, be compensated?
“Let’s first make the pros eligible, then worry about the details,” said Donald Fehr, executive director of the players’ union. “We have players from 14 different countries in our membership and they have a high level of interest in wanting to play in the Olympics.
“It’s an issue we’ve discussed on a regular basis with the players. We’ve long felt that expanding the game into international markets is something that ought to be done, and the Olympics are the most visible vehicle. But unfortunately, the best athletes are not in the Olympics, and that’s bad for the Olympics and for baseball.”
Said Dodger first baseman Eric Karros: “It sounds great ideally, but in reality I don’t see it happening. From a business standpoint, there’s no way owners are going to shut down the season or let key players leave during the middle of a pennant race. I mean, look at this team. We have players from six different countries. We’d be devastated if they all left.
“It would be nice to see a dream team tournament, but if the whole idea of an Olympics is to bring everybody into the same arena, we have an Olympics at the major league level every year. We’re already satisfying the criteria.”
Dodger owner Peter O’Malley, a respected figure in global baseball, said it would be great to see his staff of international pitchers performing for their respective countries, but “working it out is a challenge. Perhaps it can be the first and best example of the partnership I’ve been advocating between owners and players.”
Both Fehr, who is expected to join the U.S. Olympic Committee’s board of directors soon, and acting Commissioner Bud Selig said they will be watching ramifications of the 1998 hockey shutdown for possible clues as to the direction they should follow.
“There’s no question but that we need to expand our horizons and move forward with an international strategy, but there’s inherent problems [with Olympic participation] that we have to look at closely,” Selig said. “The summer months are our best months. It would be extremely difficult to shut down the game or even let a player or two from each team leave. We’ve had a lot of contact with the IOC and USA Baseball and that will continue. Maybe we can find a way.”
In the meantime, Jacque Jones said the ’96 team does not dwell on the possibility that this could be the last all-college team or that baseball may not be played in the Olympics unless it’s played by pros.
He wonders, however, if the pros would value the experience, would feel the warmth he did when the torch was passed down the line of U.S. players before the Millington opener against Nicaragua in early June and a group of Little League players chanted “USA.”
“I got chills thinking what it will be like when 50,000 do it in Atlanta,” he said.
The ’96 U.S. team has 18 players returning from the ’95 national team. The coaching staff is the same.
Bertman sees no weaknesses but is concerned about the lack of international experience among his pitchers, primarily the likely starters: Kris Benson and Billy Koch of Clemson, the Nos. 1 and 4 players selected in the draft; Seth Greisinger of Virginia, No. 6, and R.A. Dickey of Tennessee, No. 18.
“The history of U.S. participation in the Olympics is that we’ve pitched well and played great D, but haven’t done much hitting against the Cubans, Japanese and Koreans,” Bertman said.
“This is the best hitting team we’ve had, including the 1984 team that had Will Clark, Barry Larkin and Mark McGwire. Some of the guys on this team will be household names in another five years.”
Bertman won’t project a lineup, but the outfield is expected to include Kotsay, Jones and a difficult choice from among J.D. Drew of Florida State, Chad Green of Kentucky and Chad Allen of Texas A&M.; Travis Lee of San Diego State will be the first baseman. Warren Morris of LSU is expected to be the second baseman, flanked by LSU shortstop Jason Williams. Troy Glaus of UCLA is making a big run at third base, or he could be the right-handed designated hitter. A.J. Hinch of Stanford and Brian Loyd of Cal State Fullerton will do the catching. Pepperdine’s Randy Wolf and UCLA’s Jim Parque, both left-handers, are expected to play spot roles in the bullpen.
The team is at 25 and must submit a roster of 20 with five alternates by Friday.